Industrial Light & Magic

Above: an easter bonnet competition at Sealed Motor Construction, Bridgwater, c.1973.

For years when I told people I was from Somerset their response would usually be something like “Oh, how lovely!” at which I would laugh inwardly, and grimly.

I knew that they were picturing a summer day at Minehead, the roaring log fire of a country inn, or perhaps Bath, or maybe even confusing it with Devon at its most lush and rolling. They were thinking about the cover art on Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles.

What they did not have in mind was the industrial estate on Wylds Road in Bridgwater where Grandpa vacuum-formed plastic cups for vending machines and Mum packed aerosol solvents. They weren’t picturing the heat and filth of the factory where my Dad worked nights making pistons, or the one before that where he waded in chemicals, or the one before that where he (and Mum, and her parents) put together waterproof motors, or… You get the idea. They didn’t have in mind the thundering lorries or freight trains and the infrastructure that served them.

Bridgwater was shaped by industry even if many of the factories have gone, and there are other places like it up and down the West Country. What I want to do here, for my own learning, is highlight some of those industrial towns and villages and the sheer, mad range of work undertaken in a part of the world more usually associated with tourism and agriculture. It’s nothing like complete and I’ll no doubt come back to this subject when I’ve done more reading.

Advertisement for Plasticine.
From 1933, via the British Newspaper Archive.

1. At Bathampton outside Bath, for example, William Harbutt’s factory produced Plasticine, the non-drying modelling clay, from 1900 until 1983. This might sound like a bit of a joke but it was a substantial industrial operation. You can see some (small, watermarked) photos of the factory at Bath in Time.

Men scowling at the camera.
The Clarks factory at Street in (I’d guess) about 1930, via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Street, Somerset, was home to shoe manufacturing firm C &J. Clark, founded in 1825, and was the site of the original factory. Clark’s eventually had factories all across the West Country in places such as Radstock, Bridgwater and Minehead. The last, at Ilminster, closed in 2005. Clark’s head office is still in Street but the original Clark’s factory buildings have been absorbed into Clark’s Village, a rather characterless discount shopping centre with upmarket pretensions.

Men on stacks of paper.
The paper mill in via the Exmoor Magazine/Contains Art.

3. The Wansbrough paper mill at Watchet, Somerset, was a major local employer for several hundred years, from the middle of the 17th century. It closed in 2015.

Woman looking into the camera.
The Westland factory, in pre-helicopter days, via the Heritage Lottery Fund/Westland Oral History Project.

Yeovil, also in Somerset, has been a centre for the manufacture of helicopters since the end of World War II. What was Westland Helicopters is now owned by an Italian firm, Leonardo, whose almost 3,000 staff build military and civilian models including a licenced version of the Apache Longbow for the British Army. Growing up I remember that the local news was always either ‘Westland in trouble’ or ‘Westland to expand’; a helicopter came and landed on the school playground one day but I’m not sure if they were recruiting for Westland, the armed forces, or both. An oral history project recording the experiences of workers at Westland is online here.

Job advertisement.
From 1960, via the British Newspaper Archive.

5. Centrax has been making industrial gas turbines and jet engine components since the 1940s and relocated to Newton Abbot in Devon in the 1950s. Today it employs around 700 people. From 1964 to 1979 one of the local football teams was called the Newton Abbot Dynamos and played at the Centrax Ground. (Very Soviet.)

Industrial buildings.
China clay works by Kev P Bur via Flickr under Creative Commons.

6. Cornwall is of course known for mining and its landscape is marked by the debris, architecture and scars of this once great industry. At Geevor near Land’s End you can visit the remains of a tin mine that only ceased operating in 1990 and which is preserved much as it looked in those final days with lockers unemptied and curling calendars on the office walls. At Par outside St Austell a large and fully operational China clay works sits surrounded by fences on the seafront – a gritty two-finger salute to the tourist industry. China clay has been mined and processed in Cornwall since the 18th century and still employs around 2,000 people today.

Brewery buildings with a vintage car.
The derelict Bridgwater brewery in 1969 via the Brewery History Society.

7. Bridgwater in Somerset and Tiverton in Devon shared a notable brewery in Starkey, Knight & Ford. It was taken over by Whitbread in 1962 and operations were concentrated in Tiverton which became Whitbread’s western outpost until operations ceased there in 1982. Devenish, another big West Country brewer, had breweries in Dorset (Weymouth) and Cornwall (Redruth), with the latter still working as a brewery into the 21st century. There are still substantial historic working breweries at, for example, St Austell in Cornwall, Bridport in Dorset (Palmer’s) and Devizes in Wiltshire (Wadworth).


* * *

For starters, then, that’s a vast range of industry, from toys to war machines, and I haven’t even touched on bricks, dairy products, seafood processing, furniture manufacturing, chewing gum, chocolate bars, semiconductors…

Clatter, Pop, Hiss, Clang

Industrial wasteland.
Bridgwater c.1999.

Through the scratched visor I can see my hands in heavy duty gauntlets fumbling another dented aerosol into the cradle and slamming down the handle. The nail on the end of the lever pierces the can and the gas escapes with a satisfying bang, followed by a nosebleed of Hammer Horror red as the penetrant dye inside leaks into the oil drum beneath. I give it a shake to release the last of the liquid and hurl the crumpled shell into the skip at my side with another pleasing sound – this time, a cymbal crash.

This was my summer job between school and sixth-form college – puncturing cans that for one reason or another hadn’t passed quality assurance – and I rather enjoyed it. For the first time in years, and for the only time for years to come, I didn’t have revision or reading to do, and the mindlessness of the task suited the state of my post-GCSE brain.

For a dorkish introvert like me the situation was perfect, too. I’d worked on the shop floor in the factory proper for several stretches and found the constant supervision and chatter more exhausting than the labour itself. Out in the yard, it was different. Once or twice a day the foreman would appear from the side door to ask me how it was going, or just give a questioning thumbs up; sometimes someone would turn up with a fork lift and dump another load of cans into the TO DO box, usually with obvious glee at my misfortune; but mostly I was left alone. Looking through a chain-link fence and out across blonde-tipped wild grass, I could breathe.

River scene in black and white.
View along the river Parrett to the Wylds Road Industrial Estate c.1997.

Well, breathe is the wrong word. I had to wear a forest green body suit, coarse on the inside and glossy out, to protect me from being sprayed with solvents. The mask preserved my eyes and also insulated me from the worst of the fumes, but meant I could hear myself respire, and had to peer through a warm fog of my own making. It was hot in there under the kind of summer sun I’m sure they cancelled after about 2001 and I sweated like tinned ham.

Because it was so hot, my favourites among the dinged and mislabelled cans were the ‘air dusters’ which when popped gave out a magical breath of cold wind, dusted my gloves with ice and chilled my fingertips.

Oddly, doing this job is the only time I’ve ever been high. At the end of the day I had to clean my suit, removing the grey, sticky layer created by one puff after another of solvent, dye, orange-scented label remover, varnish, lubricant, and any number of other goops and greases. I did this job in a stairwell using rags and a can of the firm’s strongest ‘degreaser’. My induction, which took about five minutes altogether, included a stern warning to do this with the door open, which having grown up on anti-glue-sniffing propaganda in the 1980s I took very seriously. But one day, somehow, the stop slipped and the door betrayed me, gliding soundlessly into its frame. Innocently, I kept spraying until the job was done, but when I stood up my legs had disappeared. I knew they were there, I could see them, but I was hovering above the ground. I smirked, then frowned, then giggled, then felt sick. I realised what had happened and drifted out on to the shop floor. Oddly, nobody noticed that I was levitating, though I was sure everyone was looking at me – all those eyes! I bobbed up to the first person who crossed my path and said, earnest as ever, ‘I think I’ve abused solvents by mistake.’ As they guided me outside, manoeuvring me like a loose barrage balloon, I oscillated between laughter and seasickness. I gave someone my Klix key, I think, which is how I ended up with a beige plastic cup of foul, powdery vending machine orange pop which definitely tipped the scale from hilarity to nausea. My legs rematerialised after a few minutes along with a crushing headache. I haven’t felt inclined to repeat the experience.

For months after I finished the job I dreamed about it – a looping cinemagraph of concrete and blue sky soundtracked by the distant digestive grumbling of the factory and the clatter, POP, hiss, clang of one can after another.